With a Norwegian director, a Danish Wozzeck and a Finnish Marie, one might have expected a touch of Nordic Noir in the Deutsche Oper am Rhein’s new production of Berg’s first opera. But rather than explore that brand of ultra-realism, Stefan Herheim, in his new Düsseldorf staging of Wozzeck, goes further, and out of the gritty premise of the original – based as it is on a real-life story of a man publicly executed in 1820s Leipzig for murdering his mistress – creates something beyond realism.

Cornel Frey (Andres) and Bo Skovhus (Wozzeck) © Karl Forster
Cornel Frey (Andres) and Bo Skovhus (Wozzeck)
© Karl Forster

Before the music begins, Wozzeck is revealed strapped down in a (putatively American) execution chamber, and as the lethal injection starts to take its effect, the opera begins and proves to be his hallucinatory last imaginings, with the officers and staff surrounding him emerging as the drama’s characters. What had looked solid, real, starts to fragment – the clock on the wall goes into overdrive, the walls appear to bulge and wobble and Wozzeck’s relationship with the sinister central gurney comes and goes.

As always with Herheim, there’s the mastery of stagecraft to admire, and if straitjacketing a concept on to this most human and naturalistic of operas tests that skill, it nonetheless emerges as an interesting and thoughtful approach, if one that is somewhat cold and dehumanising, maybe because we don’t perceive the characters as entirely real themselves. Yet adherence to text and music are often surprisingly faithful. Herheim uses Berg’s occasionally woozy harmonies to suggest the trip-like effects of the drugs (aided by flashes of psychedelic animation from the ubiquitous fettFilm), and he is supremely alert to the Leitmotiv-like repetitions of the text – the moon, the knife, the ‘poor people’. Wozzeck is described at one point as running “like an open shaving knife through the world” and here one character after another over the course of the drama hands him the cut-throat razor that he will use to kill Marie, driving home their complicity in the tragedy.

Camilla Nylund (Marie) and Bo Skovhus (Wozzeck) © Karl Forster
Camilla Nylund (Marie) and Bo Skovhus (Wozzeck)
© Karl Forster

There are flashes of very dark, ironic humour, too: Wozzeck’s early scene with his friend Andres sees him digging his own grave and holding up a skull, with obvious shades of Hamlet; the prison chaplain turns out to be the Fool, who transforms himself into a drag-queen drum-majorette for his scene; and in the penultimate scene, the Captain and Doctor are shown as angels witnessing Wozzeck’s demise from above the stage-within-a-stage-like set, while holding out the surtitle screen between them.

More tiresomely, though, the house lights often go up and characters step out of the set and address the audience in senses of both plea and inclusion, especially each time the words “wir arme Leute” (we poor people) are intoned. Breaking the fourth wall like this – and it is even more of a statement when the cast appears to gather for its curtain call as the final, D minor interlude reaches its climax – only goes to reinforce the theatricality of what we are witnessing. It’s a theatre that also, of course, encompasses the paraphernalia of the death room itself, with its window through which ranks of extras witness proceedings in silence and as still as if frozen in time. Part of the irony to this whole setting is that the case of the historic Woyzeck was key to the establishment of the defence of diminished responsibility, though if a political point is being made with regard to the use of the death penalty it seems by the by.

Camilla Nylund (Marie) © Karl Forster
Camilla Nylund (Marie)
© Karl Forster

The Oper am Rhein has assembled an unrivalled cast. Dressed in his red prison jump suit, Bo Skovhus literally throws himself into the title role, conveying a man in constant mental and physical turmoil yet remaining vocally focused and fine-tuned. Camilla Nylund’s Marie is similarly vividly drawn, using plenty of tonal variation and pitch control to convey both the vulnerability and danger of her character. And it is a coup to have engaged recently crowned Opernwelt ‘singer of the year’ Matthias Klink as a wily, sinister Captain. The rest of the roles are furnished from the company’s reliable ensemble, including Corby Welch’s clarion Drum-Major, Cornel Frey’s eerie Andres, Sami Luttinen’s forceful Doctor and Katarzyna Kuncio’s well-projected Margret. The Düsseldorfer Symphoniker showed that it has Berg’s music under its collective skin and Axel Kober’s seamless musical direction exposed the modernity of the score, its force, its uncompromising angularity, as much as its nods to the Romantic tradition, which in many ways suited the disturbing but ultimately emotionally tempered theatrical side.